With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.

Experimental Structures and Invisible Illnesses

I’ve been remiss, in that I’ve not spammed you all about my most recent publication. “Fragile Insides” just came out as part of the second volume of the Orthogonal anthologies, Orthogonal: Code.

This is another story in my sci-fi, genetic plague, asteroid colony Detritus setting. It’s probably the closest to a linchpin story as I’ve done. Heady’s been the common factor for all the Detritus stories thus far, so it was inevitable that her story would pull from all the others (seriously, one of the alternate titles I was playing with was “Connective Tissue”).

Even given that, I still believe this story stands on its own. If you’ve read the other stories, there are also a lot of easter eggs and pointers to how all the other stories line up and interconnect, but the pieces here all feed Heady’s specific character arc for this particular narrative.

Given the conceit of this world, wherein all residents of The Rim suffer ill effects from the inscrutable Skew epidemic, disability has been an ongoing element. “Detritus” introduced the world through the eyes of a woman who discovers her own late in life, after having convinced herself of a natural immunity. “At Her Fingertips” explored more obvious physical deformity. And “Broken” moves inward, looking at neurodiversity in a setting where every notable difference is labelled a weakness. A Deficiency, in fact, the terminology of the world, and an intentionally loaded one.

“Fragile Insides” is my attempt to tackle something I hadn’t yet in these stories. Several of my friends suffer from so-called “invisible” physical ailments, the sort which routinely meet resistance by the larger world through thoughtless rejoinders of “but you look fine.” Heady is inspired by those friends, her combination of seeming almost super-heroic in size while constantly battling pain, or the threat of same, let me try to explore those themes in what I hope is a compelling and empathetic way using a speculative context.

Oh, and about the format on this one: blame Laura. Initial drafts of this story were very much structured like the other Detritus narratives, because in my head, that’s how you tell a Detritus story.

Heady’s story, possibly because it’s such a linchpin, possibly because I’m a bucket of fail, possibly due to the machinations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just didn’t want to play nice, though. Presented like its compatriots, the story was staid and pat and didn’t seem to get us anywhere. I joked with Laura that I was tempted to turn the whole thing into a cross-referenced digital journal, because Heady would be the kind of person to keep (and constantly update references in) something like that.

Then she went and told me to do it, dammit.

So, yes, the cross-references all work. But, as with reading the other Detritus stories, you don’t have to follow them around. You can start at the beginning and move to the end in a linear fashion, and the story still builds in a way I’m more than happy to have you experience.

If at some point you also want to go jumping between sections as they’re cross-referenced, though, you can do that, as well. It won’t be the same experience, but it’s just as much one I built. I have the notepad full of scrawled entries and link codes and more-than-mild headache to prove it.

Mishmash as Worldbuilding

I promised some wonk about “Taste of Birdsong,” didn’t I? We should do that, then, yes?

This story, unlike a lot of my other recent sales, is set in its own world, so there was a lot more whole cloth worldbuilding to do than when I write a Tall or a Detritus story. But that’s what scribbly note files are for, right?

Let’s stop and see if I can’t kill the pretension in that a bit. I don’t pretend to be burdened with so many amazing ideas that I must — simply must, my dear — write them all down as soon as divine provenance sends them to me, lest the world be robbed of my brilliance.

Yeah, no. What I have is a brain that runs scattershot. I have some ideas that are silly and some which seem kind of cool and a lot which are completely random and probably not particularly insightful or intriguing in the least. I tend to tap them into the Drive app on my phone not to record brilliance, but to get them out of my head. When I’m in a place to noodle around with things, I periodically pull the little bits of stuff out and poke at them to see if anything happens.

Which, as this story will attest, sometimes results in something. The world and story here came from a bunch of different little ideas that were floating around unattached.

I had at one point written down something about migrating trees. Not Ents, not sentient anythings. I’d just been wondering what might happen to a hunter / gatherer paradigm when the things from which we gathered were also the things we hunted.

Similarly, I had another scribble about transitional senses. That one came from a weird thought progression that started somewhere with me noodling alternate senses that could be used for telecommunication, of all things.

Neither of those were a story, of course. It wasn’t until I decided I wanted to see if I could write something that mucked about with perception and notions of strength and beauty that I had something to hang things on.

Given that Sovani’s journey is one where he’s trying to assemble a life for himself, the meta hodgepodge that went into the world he lives in is at least thematically appropriate.

Pronouns Caught In a Twister

So, after record-breaking attendance at the launch reading, Clockwork Phoenix 5 is now a thing which is officially out in the world. Which means “The Wind at His Back,” my story which starts this particular volume of “tales of beauty and strangeness,” is also officially a thing in the world, about which I couldn’t be more excited.

This story is special to me for several reasons. As I mentioned before, I went through a massive rut of writing basically nothing. What I didn’t say then (because we were talking about a different story), is that “The Wind at His Back” is the first story I wrote when I finally sat down and decided I was ready to write again. For that reason alone it’s pretty significant to me. I’ve sold other stories before this, but managing to sell the story that kind of marks my return to writing is its own unique awesome.

That my first dive back in has also been called out in a Publisher’s Weekly starred review and a Locus review certainly doesn’t hurt the warm fuzzy of it all.

They aren’t all glowing, mind you. One Goodreads reviewer wasn’t particularly impressed by the gay relationship at the heart of the story, where, as he summed it up “Basically, to add gay, change pronouns.”

I’m not highlighting this to be all sour grapes about it, mind you, but rather to lead into the other element of “The Wind at His Back” which makes it mean so much to me. This wasn’t the first time I’d written stories with gay characters, but previous to this, I always worried about writing gay characters. I hemmed and hawed about whether characters “needed” to be gay, if they might distract from other important things in the story.

When I came back to writing, when I sat down to write this story, I finally decided I was going to stop giving a fuck.

Look, when I came back to this, it needed to be something I wanted to do. Something that made me happy. That I was proud of. And I realized I couldn’t really enjoy writing if I had to worry readers might not respond to (or be actively averse to) people like me in fiction written by me. I knew that I, for one, was always extra excited to invest emotionally when a story I was reading or watching decided that (1) I existed, and (2) my existence needed neither a reason nor a special tragedy to justify said existence.

And there it was. Benito started riding from town toward the quiet home and life he’d made after leaving the bloody angst of life as a tornado wrangler, and hell if he didn’t come home to his husband. Pronouns switched. Gay achieved. That was, in fact, exactly how I added gay. And how I keep adding gay. Because of course it won’t be for everyone, but the people it’s for are, to my mind, the audience I want.

I’ve already published several subsequent stories which subscribe to that same “fuck it, you don’t need justification to exist” philosophy I adopted, but in a lot of ways, “The Wind at His Back” has always kind of been the mission statement, the tentpole, the source. That Mike Allen included it in Clockwork Phoenix 5, then, is an intense kind of validation.

Now, enough blubbering from me. Go read about my former tornado wrangler facing his troubled past while just trying to have a nice quiet life with his husband and the neighboring giants and his drinking buddy and her pet jackalope. The Mythic Delirium site’s collected the slew of formats and vendors into one handy post to help you out.

On Storytelling and Alien Perspectives

The latest episode of The Sockdolager podcast is live. Editors Paul Starr and Alison Wilgus share their insights on what they liked, loved, and noodled over for all of the stories in the Fall issue. As you may recall (and if you don’t, obviously I am un-subtly reminding you), this was the issue in which Hide Behind saw the light of published day.

Alison and Paul say a lot of the kind of complimentary stuff that makes the self-deprecating voices in my head squirm and wriggle, which is always nice. I won’t rehash all of it, because you should just go listen, but I will say I was especially happy that they made note of Yuna’s asexuality.

I did a lot of fiddling and angsting to find a way to make Yuna’s sexuality explicit without something so clunky as “As an asexual, Yuna…” in the narration or, worse, giving someone horrible “You see, Yuna, since you’re asexual…” dialogue. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

In editing, we never actually discussed any of the characters’ sexuality, though, so I’ll admit part of me wondered, but: it reads. Huzzah!

The other interesting bit I wanted to highlight is a discussion Paul and Alison have about whether or not this story takes place on Earth. Which never occurred to me, though I suppose it should have: while I was shopping this story around, a fantasy-only market I subbed it to rejected it explicitly because they thought it was too sci-fi for them.

Here’s the thing: in my head, “Hide Behind” takes place on an alt-history Earth filled with folklore come to life. However, I also have the benefit of having read the other stories I’ve set in this world. Only, one of those was published in an anthology that I’m not sure has got a lot of attention, one is forthcoming and thus isn’t in very many hands, either, and the others are either out on sub or aren’t even finished yet.

Stripped of other-story context, it makes sense. Most of the other stories lean a lot more heavily into the folklore and magic aspects. Yuna and Ruthie’s story, though, is probably the lowest on magic of any of the Tall stories. Which is intentional. I very much wanted to explore the nature of medicine and science in a world populated by so much fantastic, magical stuff. How do you navigate that, I wondered?

As a result, the mystical nature of the world gets a whole lot more grounding. When you actually start dissecting a giant and performing botanical grafts of trees with healing fruit, things become less magical and more alien.

Which, honestly, is its own kind of cool. “Hide Behind” is a story about characters who are alienated in a lot of ways, after all. Given one of my intentions with the Tall stories is to create works that can stand on their own (I’ve not sold more than one of them to the same market), but which can also provide a different experience for folks who have read more than one, this actually feels like proof of concept.

Also: I blame Firefly. ;)

The Title Applies to Everyone

I couldn’t start this post.

No, really. I’ve deleted at least a dozen versions of it, because all of them seem pedantic, or back-patting, or entitled. That I’m going to get this horribly, insultingly wrong.

This isn’t entirely new. I get semi-regularly stuck on things when they aren’t exactly right. I latch onto something, and whether I want to or not, I can’t push through it or get around it. My mental wheels spin, and I’m screaming inside because there is no earthly reason why this should be so incredibly difficult. What. The Hell. Is wrong with me?

Appropriately enough, I was in one of those places when I finally sat down and started “Broken.” Sy’s initial thoughts, his cavalier declarations that his head is broken, were a hyperbolic bit of channeling.

That’s the thing about mental illness and developmental disorders which I find most … compelling is the wrong word; it casts people living very real challenges as some kind of exoticized zoo exhibit. Terrifying is just as wrong for similar reasons: while I suppose some people may indeed be monsters, I don’t think the people struggling to make it through the day qualify.

So there isn’t a good word for it, which I suppose is also appropriate. Regardless, one of the things at the heart of Sy’s story is the realization that something inside isn’t “normal,” and that, further, knowing this doesn’t necessarily allow him to change that thing inside. If it were that easy, I’m not sure how many of us wouldn’t just flip that magical switch.

Even outside the world of science fiction, there’s a false equivalence drawn between self-awareness and self-actualization. If we know what the problem is, then why the heck can’t we fix it by deciding not to give it audience? In a world where science works what we might think of as miracles, it’s even more tempting to allow for a quick fix.

Of course, the very notion of normal is especially troubling and problematic on the asteroid colonies collectively known as The Rim. There, every single person exists with a twisted genetic code thanks to the inheritable plague that is The Skew. What the hell does normal even mean in that context? But if everyone is telling you it means not who you are, what does that mean for you?

Inside, after all, is us. If you change yourself, do you change your self? What do you give up to be “better,” to be “normal”?

What if the answer is too much?

Secrets and Meddling and Science Gone Right

I promised something more substantial about Hide Behind, didn’t I? I should get to that. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but if you want to read the story completely cold, I’d suggest clicking the link above first and doing so. You can always come back.

Everyone good going forward? Excellent.

Given this is in part a story about secrets, how about I start with one? It may not be an especially well-hidden one, but here goes: before around August of last year, it had been a decade plus since I’d written much of any new fiction. There were occasional dalliances, mind, but nothing sustained.

Due to my previous fits without much start, going into this latest attempt I decided to try to give myself a slight leg up. Laura had been having success writing several stories which shared a world in her Teachout stories. Success both in that she was pubbing the stories and that I was digging on them.

Worldbuilding is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Personally, I can get a bit lost in the background research and brainstorming and burn myself out before I get to the actual story. I thought doing something similar to Laura might leave me with energy to write more. I took a look at those few stories I had which I liked, and fiddled about thinking about which ones might have enough worldbuilding lying about that I could further explore.

I found two, one of which was Tall. I’d peppered Elsie’s story with a lot of background material, most of which I hadn’t dug in deep with. So I made a short list of the biggest bits of background and set about noodling them for story.

One of those bits are the Seeders (colloquially known as “tinpots”), a heretofore unseen movement peopled by folks planting fruit trees where they have no earthly right to grow, and who apparently only ask in return that folks who partake of the fruit throw the seeds to the wind to continue the process.

I knew I wanted a scientist to be butting up against the secrets of a Seeder tree. Figuring out how and in what ways science works in a world with literal magic is just too much fun to pass up, after all.

It started with one scientist, frontier doctor Yuna, but Ruthie, a botanist, showed up pretty quickly after, and I might have smiled a bit. Intrepid lady scientists versus mysterious magic! What’s not to love about that?

The pair of them diligently worked to unlock the secrets of Seeder magic, all the while facing off against some very strong resistance by locals who thought science had no place meddling with something like the pseudo-religious work of the tinpots.

And then people started dying, because if there’s one mortal enemy of a doctor, it has to be unexplained deaths, yes? Worse, what if the explanation was that aforementioned meddling?

I promised no spoilers, so that’s all the further I’ll go, but yeah: “Hide Behind” is a story about science and meddling and faith and friendship and what we know and what we think we know.

With magic trees and the autopsy of a giant.